Revisioning Canada’s political parties

Canada suffers from a deepening democratic malaise. Fewer citizens vote: turnout has declined steadily from an average of 75 per cent in the pre-1993 period to 60.5 per cent in 2004. And these are registered voters: if all potential voters were taken into account, the actual incidence of voting would be even lower.

Falling turnout is only the most obvious symptom of the malaise. Another is the low incidence of party membership. Among citizens of Western democracies, Canadians are the least likely to join political parties, with roughly 2 per cent of Canadians being party members. This figure does tend to increase during periods of intense mobilization – leadership contests, local nomination battles and election campaigns – but few “instant” members remain active once the immediate battle ceases. Moreover, few long-serving party members can be described as “active.” According to the recent survey of partisans by William Cross and Lisa Young, most members devote little time to party campaign work and no time to party activities between elections.1

Within a few years, this percentage is likely to decline even further. Cross and Young report that the average age of “hard core” members is 60; only 5 per cent are under 30. Young Canadians appear increasingly apathetic – even antipathetic – toward representative democracy in general, and parties in particular. Moreover, many middle-aged Canadians, whom the parties count on for new recruits, are being turned away from politics by the allegations of corruption and favouritism issuing from the Gomery inquiry. All this at a time of instability in the party system, which seems set to produce minority governments and frequent elections, demanding more time and effort from Canadian partisans than most seem willing to muster.

The implications on party organization are troubling. A party lacking a solid base in the electorate cannot carry out its functions of linking the institutions of government to civil society and, in the words of the 1991 Lortie Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, of providing “opportunities for citizens to exercise their rights and to perform their civic obligations through volunteer participation in political activities and public discourse.” The link between party activity and voter turnout is particularly significant. A 2002 survey of Canadian nonvoters found that people who had been contacted by a political party during an election campaign were significantly more likely to vote than those who had not. If parties lack the volunteer base required to carry out a strong “retail” campaign, they cannot mobilize citizens to “exercise their rights” by casting ballots.

Furthermore, party membership is the traditional gateway to a political career. Parties that fail to recruit citizens into the political process imperil the future vitality of the political class. They also leave themselves open to “takeovers” by well-organized groups or individuals with a particular cause to promote. In the 1990 Liberal leadership contest, Tom Wappel’s “Liberals for Life” capitalized on the weakness of constituency associations in the Western provinces to mount a single-issue campaign at the convention; David Orchard’s anti–free trade movement pursued a similar strategy in the 1998 and 2003 Progressive Conservative leadership contests.

Identifying the symptoms of the democratic malaise is considerably easier than devising a cure. The developments discussed here are only some of the causes, and no single remedy can restore our polity to health. Indeed, there is little to be done at least in the short term about the root causes of our widespread disengagement from politics. The political values of younger Canadians cannot be transformed overnight. But we cannot afford to wait. The Gomery inquiry’s revelations of how parties can be involved in corruption makes it more difficult but also more urgent to strengthen the role of parties in fostering the civic duties on which self-government depends.

I believe one promising prescription to begin to remedy this democratic malaise would be to amend the Canada Elections Act to set clear incentives for parties to rebuild and revitalize their membership bases. It may seem odd to suggest that changes in the laws regulating political parties would be required for this purpose. After all, there are no legal barriers to membership in Canadian parties: anyone can join a party, subject to the party’s own rules. But in practice, party organizations – especially the small cliques operating in the constituencies – rarely welcome “outsiders” with open arms. They seldom make it easy for new members to join: unless the local association has a sitting MP with an office in the constituency, it can be a challenge even to contact the party organization (although this is less true in the age of party websites, which increasingly provide links to local organizers).

Even when constituency associations are forced to throw the doors open, as they do during leadership and nomination contests and general elections, they are motivated more by self-interest than by any commitment to “volunteer participation in political activities.” Party membership, as the Lortie Commission put it, is generally and increasingly seen “as a useful instrument for mobilizing support for an individual wanting to become a party candidate, leader or officer.” It is “not designed to bind new members to the ideas of the party, but to advance the electoral aspirations of individuals.”

Under these circumstances, a “demand-side” approach is called for. Parties will require a strong incentive to recruit members, one sufficiently powerful to overcome existing disincentives to local party mobilization. Recent amendments to the Canada Elections Act (Bills C-24 and C-3), which took effect in 2004, have laid the foundations for further amendments that could in fact create such an incentive. After presenting a brief overview of the Act and explaining the implications of the recent amendments, I will propose three additional amendments along these lines.

Political parties as public utilities

Bill C-24 recognizes and enshrines the evolution of Canadian political parties from “private clubs” to what in the European context has been termed “public utilities.” In the words of Ingrid van Biezen,

As a result of changing conceptions of parties and democracy political parties have come to be perceived increasingly as necessary and desirable institutions for modern democracy. This has paved the way for the legitimation of direct state involvement in their internal affairs and their external activities. Moreover, public funding and the extensive nature of public control on party finance have contributed to a transformation of parties from the traditionally voluntary private associations which perform public roles and occupy government positions, towards parties as public utilities.2

The idea of political parties as “public utilities” implies at least four things. First, parties perform important services which benefit the community as a whole. Second, the value of those services justifies the provision of generous subsidies from the state. Third, political parties merit a privileged status in law, relative to other types of organizations. Fourth, the internal and external activities of political parties should be regulated by the state, both to enforce the proper management of their finances and to ensure that they perform their unique services effectively.

In the 20th century, the evolution of Canadian parties from private clubs to public utilities proceeded incrementally. Milestones along the way included the introduction of the registration scheme in 1970, which subjected parties (as distinct from candidates) to state regulation for the first time, and the Election Expenses Act of 1973. Bill C-24 cemented this process by introducing direct and relatively generous annual “allowances” from the government. A party’s allowance is determined by the number of valid votes which it received in the previous general election; each vote is worth $1.75 per year. According to Elections Canada, the Liberal Party received $9.2 million in 2004, the first year allowances were paid. Previously, though the federal government had provided indirect subsidies in nonelection years in the form of tax receipts for donations, direct subsidies had been restricted to election campaign periods (through the partial reimbursement of “election expenses” claimed by parties and candidates). The bill also extended the existing regulatory regime for registered parties and candidates to cover leadership races, nomination contests and constituency associations (called “electoral district associations” in the Act).

As matters stand now, the annual allowances may actually further weaken the links between our parties and the electorate, rather than the reverse. Some experts argue that public subsidies widen the gap between parties and civil society by relieving parties of the need to raise funds from the electorate. The possible result is a vicious circle as parties are forced to rely on the state for funding because they are losing their capacity to attract members and donations. Beyond this, European experience suggests that subsidies erode the relationship between parties and the wider society. To the extent that the need to fundraise constitutes an incentive for parties to engage with individuals and groups, direct public subsidies reduce that incentive.

On the positive side, that experience also offers a promising solution. When public subsidies are tied to explicit legal obligations, these obligations can force parties to take their democratic duties more seriously. In those European countries that have adopted “Party Laws,” where subsidies are tied to democracy-enhancing activities (especially between elections), there is good reason to believe that the potential negative effects of public subsidies is at least partially offset by an explicit legal quid pro quo.

The best-known example of a “Party Law” is the 1967 German Parteiengesetz, which defines a political party as an organization that participates continuously in “the formation of the political will of the people.” Its constitutional duties explicitly go beyond “participating in … elections by nominating candidates” to encompass “inspiring and furthering political education …, promoting an active participation by individual citizens in political life … training talented people to assume public responsibilities.”3

In Canada, the statutory definition of a political party is much narrower. Bill C-3 inserted the following definition into section 2 of the Canada Elections Act: a political party is “an organization one of whose fundamental purposes is to participate in public affairs by endorsing one or more of its members as candidates and supporting their election.” This amendment was enacted in response to the 2003 Figueroa ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada, which struck down the requirement that a political party nominate at least 50 candidates in a general election to qualify for registered status. Today, the leader of a party seeking to register with Elections Canada must submit a formal written declaration of the party’s conformity to the statutory definition; that declaration must be renewed every three years. If the Chief Electoral Officer or the Commissioner of Canada Elections has reason to suspect that a party is not genuinely committed to “participating in public affairs” within the meaning of the Act, the Commissioner may seek a court order deregistering the party. A party may also face deregistration if it fails to report its annual and election financial transactions or changes in the information posted on the Registry of Parties maintained by Elections Canada.

Compared to the legal obligations imposed on German parties, those enshrined in the Canada Elections Act seem strikingly inadequate. Canada appears to have the worst of all worlds: generous public subsidies with few corresponding legal duties. If we are to offset negative effects of the subsidies, we need to address the legal duties by making eligibility for annual allowances contingent on efforts to engage with the electorate between elections, and specifically to maintain permanent structures which would attract and retain active members. What I have in mind are policy foundations like those affiliated with the German political parties but adapted to the Canadian context. Unless such provisions are added to the Act, the parties will lack the incentive to take the actions required to reverse the decline in their membership. Let me spell out what this would entail in the form of three amendments to the Canada Elections Act.

New activities for political parties

My first proposal is to amend the definition of a “political party” to require registered parties to perform certain activities between elections as a prerequisite for inclusion on the Register of Parties (and, thereby, as a condition of receiving their annual allowances). I am here thinking of activities that encourage members to contribute to party policy development. This amendment should be framed in sufficiently precise terms to allow Elections Canada to determine whether a party is or is not in compliance with the statutory requirements. One such mechanism would be for each party to establish and maintain a policy foundation, responsible for involving members in continuous policy debate and formulation; the foundation would submit an annual report, detailing the number and type of events held over the preceding 12 months and attaching a list of resolutions approved by the membership.

The idea that Canadian political parties should establish quasi-independent policy foundations was first proposed by the Lortie Commission in 1991. The commission argued that parties were failing as agencies of political education and mobilization. To revitalize these important functions, each party should be encouraged to establish a publicly subsidized charitable foundation for the purpose of engaging members in continuous policy debate and research. The foundation would be controlled by a board of directors drawn from the various elements of the party’s organization, subject to a separate constitution. Only those parties which received at least 5 per cent of the national vote in the previous general election would be entitled to public funding for their foundations. Private donations would make up any shortfall in a foundation’s budget.

The Commission’s recommendation was inspired, in part, by Germany’s Stiftungen. These bodies originated in the late 1940s, as part of the Allied effort to foster democracy in West Germany (and to counter Communist propaganda from East Germany). The federal interior ministry provided direct funding, while the education ministry offered scholarships to students who wished to study at a particular foundation. By the 1980s the largest foundations, those affiliated with the Christian Democratic and Social Democratic parties, had permanent offices in Bonn and around the world staffed by hundreds of permanent employees. Collectively, they attracted roughly 100,000 people a year to their political education seminars and residential study sessions, and oversaw the intensive training of a few thousand students in law and graduate studies. By these measures, the foundations were a great success.

At the same time, however, financing scandals revealed that the parties sometimes used their foundations to launder questionable donations. (The laws were subsequently changed to reinforce the separation between the two organizations.) Moreover, the deep penetration of the party organizations (especially that of the Social Democrats) into the public sector and civil society raised questions about the motivations for participating in Stiftung activities: were people drawn by a thirst for political education, or by careerism? These problems notwithstanding, the Stiftung model offers some useful lessons for Canadian parties and policymakers. As the Lortie Commission put it, “The links between parties and their members need to be revitalized and broadened, and the capacities of parties to develop public policies must be enhanced.” Party foundations could give parties the chance to recapture their central place in public discourse, which now appears to have shifted to interest groups.

The policy foundation requirement could be combined with a requirement to submit audited membership lists at the end of each year, to prove active engagement in recruiting and retaining members. Under the current Act (section 384), a registered party must submit a list containing the names and addresses of 250 members “and their declarations in the prescribed form that they are members of the party.” In addition to the manifest inadequacy of the required figure – and the absence of any stipulation that the members be from more than one constituency – there is no requirement that the list be verified by an outside agency.

Expanded requirements for constituency associations

Second, we should amend the definition of an “electoral district association” and the criteria for registering such associations. Under Bill C-24, a constituency association (EDA) cannot receive or spend money or, in practice, nominate candidates for the House of Commons unless it is registered with Elections Canada. To register, the association must simply submit a form identifying its officers, demonstrating their willingness to act in their respective capacities and providing an address for correspondence.

I propose that the requirements be expanded. To achieve and retain registered status, every constituency association with adequate financial resources should be required to establish a permanent office. The creation and maintenance of these premises, entirely separate from the premises of an incumbent MP (if the party has one in that constituency), would become a condition of eligibility to nominate a candidate for the House of Commons. The party office must be kept separate from MPs’ offices to underline the distinction between the MP’s “ombudsman” role (which requires him or her to serve all constituents without prejudice) and the partisan organization of the constituency association. There should also be a clear line between the financial affairs of the party per se and the legislative or cabinet responsibilities of an MP (as recent testimony before the Gomery inquiry suggests).

In densely populated urban centres, two or more constituency associations could establish a shared office in a central location. The office would be staffed by at least one full-time or part-time worker, depending on the financial resources of the association (discussed below). He or she (or they, in the case of pooled offices) would be primarily responsible for recruiting and tracking members, keeping the records of the association, organizing regular events (e.g. social gatherings and political education workshops), and ensuring compliance with the Act. At the very least, the establishment of a permanent office would make it easier to join the party. Moreover, a full-time employee is better able than a few overburdened volunteers to meet the regulatory requirements already imposed on constituency associations by Bill C-24. (During second reading on Bill C-24, then–PC leader Joe Clark raised serious concerns about the ability of constituency associations to sustain the new disclosure, registration and record-keeping tasks mandated by the legislation, warning, “I doubt that any party is strong enough in all 301 constituencies in the country to file the reports to Elections Canada that this new bill would require.” Clark was right: as of June 30, 2005, only 62 per cent of the registered EDAs had complied with the financial reporting requirement under Bill C-24.)

An annual allowance for constituency associations

At present, the annual allowances are paid to the national headquarters of each party. Section 435.02 of the Act permits a registered party to direct payment of part of its allowance to a provincial wing, but not to a constituency association. Bill C-24 limits the amount of money that constituency associations can receive from corporations, unions and other associations, or individuals. Therefore, if the constituency associations are to perform the functions I am proposing for them, on top of those required by the existing amendments, they will require a secure and stable funding base separate from the national headquarters.

Accordingly, the third proposed amendment would create a new annual allowance for constituency associations. Like the national allowance, this subsidy would be based on the number of votes received by each party in the previous election. Unfairness to new parties could be reduced by basing the allowance on individual constituency results, not the national vote share, and by giving a higher per-vote subsidy to the first 5 per cent of the votes in a particular constituency. To carry out the requisite functions, I envisage a subsidy of, say, $2.25 per valid vote for the first 5 per cent and $1.75 per valid vote over 5 per cent of the total. Based on the number of valid votes cast for party candidates in 2004, the total cost of the proposed annual allowance would be between $27 and $28 million (in addition to $23.4 million for the current national allowances).

The rationale is straightforward. The constituency associations – unlike national party headquarters – are embedded in their communities. If we want our parties to penetrate more deeply into civil society, this can only be achieved by local activists with sufficient resources. Otherwise, the concentration of wealth at national party headquarters seems likely to undermine the autonomy and vitality of constituency associations even further, by making them more dependent on the good graces of the central office.

Tying a constituency association’s allowance directly to the number of valid votes gives parties a strong incentive to revitalize their local campaign organizations. Though a strong constituency-based campaign in a single-member electoral system makes an appreciable difference in the party’s vote share, parties generally have little incentive to reverse the atrophy of their local associations. As long as they can keep winning seats, parties are not too much concerned about the dwindling number of votes cast in the constituency. This is not true, however, of constituency associations whose financial fortunes are directly tied to the ability to identify supporters and get them out to the polls. This can only have a positive effect in stemming if not reversing the decline in voter turnout.

The effectiveness of an economic incentive depends on its attractiveness to the potential recipient. An analysis of the financial information disclosed to Elections Canada by registered electoral district associations shows that most are in dire need of funds, which suggests that many would adjust their behaviour to capitalize on the allowance. Of the 824 EDAs that had disclosed their assets and liabilities prior to June 30, 2005, almost 55 per cent had less than $10,000 in the bank. This is clearly insufficient to meet the overhead costs of an office and the salary of a part-time employee, never mind a full-time worker. Assuming a minimum cost of roughly $15,000 to $20,000 annually, none of these EDAs could meet the requirement of a separate office for even one year – let alone a full electoral cycle. Fewer than 6 per cent of the EDAs which complied with the reporting requirements had $75,000 or more in assets. These wealthy EDAs may not find the proposed allowance a strong incentive, but the remainder likely would.

The attractiveness of the incentive also depends on the size of the allowance that would be paid to each constituency association. On the basis of official voting results from the 2004 general election, 40 per cent of the associations which ran candidates would have been entitled to an annual stipend of $10,000 or less under the system I propose. Many of those are located in rural ridings with lower population densities, where pooling is not an option. It would be unrealistic and unfair to impose the office requirement on these associations. For most constituency associations, however, an office would be an achievable goal, since those at the margin need only to work harder to get more voters to the poll – a far from impossible task since the turnout rate in most constituencies in 2004 fell below 60 per cent.

Changing the dynamic

Together, these proposed amendments could provide the necessary incentive for national and local party elites to reach out to voters who would otherwise remain apathetic and disengaged. And they would legitimize public funds being used to subsidize party organizations between elections. Otherwise, it is perfectly reasonable for citizens to ask why, since the raison d’être of a political party is to run candidates for election, they should receive ever-larger subsidies for a task they perform anyway.

Moreover, the proposed amendments are consistent with what we know about party members. Generally speaking, people join and remain in political parties because they derive some sort of personal benefit from doing so. Cross and Young’s survey found that the most important such benefit for Canadian partisans is purposive or ideological. In other words, people join a political party because they believe in its policies and principles. The drawing power of ideology varies from party to party but, with the exception of Liberal partisans, policy and ideology have greater appeal than personal gain or access to friendship networks – especially when it comes to retaining members over the long term. If this is correct, then it follows that requiring our parties to invest in policy-related activities for their members will yield larger and more active memberships.

However, Cross and Young are sceptical about this on two grounds. First, they conclude that the drawing power of ideology seems to be diminishing over time. This would be a problem for the proposed policy foundations if recent party recruits are less motivated by ideology than their veteran compadres. On the other hand, it may just be that that parties offer fewer opportunities for policy involvement (compared, say, to interest groups) than in the past. Cross and Young also report that members of the New Democratic Party are no more active in party affairs than their Liberal counterparts despite the NDP’s greater emphasis on policy debate, which “throws into question the assumption that, given the opportunity for more extensive and meaningful involvement in party affairs, individuals would be more inclined to be active party members.”4 An alternative, and equally plausible, inference is that activists are discouraged by the intermittent and ad hoc process of policy formulation in both parties. A continuous process of political education, in the form of frequent and focused discussions sponsored by a permanent policy foundation, is a different proposition from a weekend policy convention every two years.

If the amendments proposed here were adopted, they would give our national parties a strong financial and regulatory incentive to recruit and involve members between elections. A national party which failed to fulfill its statutory obligations in this regard would risk deregistration, with the resulting loss of public benefits – eligibility for public subsidies, being identified on the ballot or claiming a share of broadcast time for campaign advertising. A constituency association which did not make continuous efforts to recruit and retain new members would face regulatory sanctions. At worst, it might be barred from nominating a candidate for Parliament, though denial of allowances should normally suffice.

Such measures will not make the democratic malaise disappear overnight, but they could change the dynamic. As Susan Scarrow notes,

Parties with locally organized members are more likely than others to reach out to citizens individually, urging existing members to use their own social networks to recruit new members and mobilize electoral support … may be much more effective than centralized media campaigns in building ties to citizens, and in conveying the impression that a party is more than just an enterprise of the political elite. Parties that offer members social benefits may foster attachments to political sub-communities, and may thereby combat declining party identification. In addition, local parties can serve as good training grounds for citizens to become active in politics.5

Overcoming resistance

But what if the patient refuses to take the medicine? The Canada Elections Act is a federal statute, which can only be amended by the parties that currently occupy the House of Commons. They are clearly willing to give themselves additional public benefits, but asking them to embrace new legal obligations is a more difficult proposition. Yet some parties will surely see in the idea a chance to do something they would have liked to do but could not justify allocating scarce resources for.

In addition, two other factors could help overcome the parties’ reluctance. The first is political scandal, which often provokes the parties to reform election laws. As the Lortie Commission put it in 1991, “Political parties will always be subject to demands that activities be regulated when these activities appear to depart significantly from public expectations of appropriate conduct, or when parties are perceived as being incapable of or unwilling to modify the offending practices.” Whatever the outcome of the next election, the sponsorship scandal will almost certainly inspire yet another round of reform to the Canada Elections Act. These will likely take the form of stronger compliance and disclosure rules, but there is no reason why additional amendments, such as those proposed here, could not be added to the package.

Second, Parliament no longer enjoys a monopoly over the content of election laws. Since the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms took effect in 1982, and especially over the past half-dozen years, most amendments to the Act have arisen from court rulings. Bill C-3 is an example: as noted earlier, the change to the party-registration scheme was mandated by the Supreme Court of Canada as a remedy for violations of the democratic rights set out in section 3 of the Charter. As Canadian parties have evolved into “public utilities,” the volume of laws regulating their activities has grown. Greater legal regulation of political parties leads inevitably to more judicial review of their activities.

At the moment, the traditional “hands-off” position of the Canadian courts vis-à-vis political parties prevails: judges are usually unwilling to grant standing in litigation to political parties and to treat disputes arising from the internal activities of political parties as fully justiciable – at least where the law is silent about specific procedural requirements. In contrast, there is a clear trend toward greater judicial oversight of the Canadian electoral process. Judges have been particularly strict in enforcing the rights to vote and run for public office guaranteed in section 3, as the notwithstanding clause does not apply to that section and democratic rights are central to the “free and democratic society” enshrined in section 1.

On its face, section 3 has nothing to say about political parties and their activities; it guarantees rights to individual citizens, not to political groups. But the Supreme Court has determined that section 3 protects two key democratic values: the right to effective representation in the legislature, and the right to play a meaningful role in the selection of elected representatives. Neither value can be put into effect without political parties. In the Figueroa ruling, the majority held that “political parties have a much greater capacity than any one citizen to participate in debate and they act as a vehicle for the participation of individual citizens in the political life of the country … Political parties provide individual citizens with an opportunity to express an opinion on the policy and functioning of government.”

The Figueroa ruling portrays the existence of parties as a necessary condition for exercising the rights in section 3. This brings the operations of political parties within the scope of judicial scrutiny. To date, this scrutiny has been largely confined to the external activities of parties – their electoral functions. The extension of the regulatory regime in Bill C-24 will subject parties’ internal activities to judicial review and remedy. To apply its principle that parties are “a vehicle for the participation of individual citizens,” the Supreme Court could very well begin to hold parties accountable for their failure to mobilize citizens into active political engagement. If the parties currently represented in Parliament refuse to impose greater legal obligations on themselves in exchange for the new annual allowances, the courts could do it for them.

To conclude, there are good reasons to believe that the changes to the Canada Elections Act proposed here would produce some short-term relief from the symptoms of the democratic malaise (falling voter turnout and shrinking party memberships). More importantly, over the long term, they would strengthen the links between local party organizations and their surrounding communities, enhance the policy capacity of the national parties and draw talented people into politics. It would, of course, be foolhardy to overlook the remaining supply-side barriers to political engagement – in particular, the competing demands on the time and energy of people who might otherwise engage in political activity. But it would be equally foolhardy to give up altogether and allow the malaise to proceed unchecked. In the wake of the Gomery inquiry, Canadians are likely to become even more cynical and disillusioned. Now is the time for creative, and perhaps even drastic, measures to arrest the disease.

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